Bird Watcher's General Store

White-breasted Nuthatch Behavior

Dear Bird Folks,

Iím a faithful reader of your column, but I donít recall that you have ever written about one of my favorite backyard birds, the White-breasted Nuthatch. Please tell me something about their behavior.

Ė Ralph, Dennis Port, MA

Thanks, Ralph,

Itís nice to hear you are a faithful reader. Iím glad somebody is. Although you arenít as ďfaithfulĒ as you claim because I have written about White-breasted Nuthatches before. I wrote a column about them back on April 29th, 2005. Remember, Tommy, from Rosewood, KY wrote in with a nuthatch question? No? How can you not remember? It was only ten years and 520 columns ago. It looks like someone needs to start paying attention. Just teasing you. The truth is, until I looked it up I didnít even remember writing that column. But Iím glad you asked because they have to be mentioned more than once every ten years. If any bird needs to hire a new press agent, itís the White-breasted Nuthatch.

White-breasted Nuthatches are like canned peas: they are always around, but for some reason no one (except you and Tommy, from Rosewood, KY) ever pays much attention to them. In fact, nuthatches are one of the few bird species that people are actually neutral about. We become downright giddy over hummingbirds, orioles and bluebirds or go into a rage at the sight of a crow, grackle or Blue Jay. Yet, I rarely hear a good word or a bad word about nuthatches. Are they just too bland to talk about? Hmm, letís see what I can find to make these flying ďcanned peasĒ more interesting.

Letís start with the obvious: Nuthatches have the rare ability to walk down tree trunks headfirst (which, if you havenít tried it, is a really scary thing to do). This behavior alone should be enough to impress us. Even the much-adored bluebirds canít do that, and neither can other tree trunk-loving birds like woodpeckers and Brown Creepers. Why do nuthatches walk down trees headfirst? Are they just showing off or do they enjoy the sensation of having blood rush to their heads? More likely it has to do with foraging. By walking down the tree, instead of up, nuthatches are able to discover hidden food that the upward climbing birds miss. To keep from tumbling to the ground, nuthatches grip the bark with the help of their strong legs, sharp claws and extra-long toes. (If you need your back scratched, this would be a good bird to ask.)

Here in eastern North America we have three species of nuthatches. There is the adorable Brown-headed Nuthatch (found in the Southeast), the chatty Red-breasted Nuthatch (that tends to live farther north) and your fave, the White-breasted. In addition, the western states have a fourth species, the Pygmy Nuthatch (which sounds like it should be politically incorrect to say, but apparently itís okay). A few winters ago large numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches invaded Cape Cod (and other areas) searching for food. A seed crop failure forced thousands of these little birds to move south, and the local pitch pine forests were alive with the sounds of noisy Red-breasted Nuthatches. However, such mass movements are less likely to happen with white-breasteds because they tend to remain in the same location year-round. In addition, these birds normally stay in pairs. So, unlike chickadees or finches, which come to our feeders in small flocks, you are apt to only see two white-breasts in your yard at one time. (Iím sure there was a better way to write that last sentence, but I left it in for you, Ralph.)

Because WBNU (thatís not a radio station; itís cool birder talk for White-breasted Nuthatch) couples stay together throughout the year, they feel the need to stay in close contact as they forage. Youíll know when a pair is in the Ďhood because youíll hear their distinctive ďyank, yank, yankĒ call. But even devoted couples can only take so much of each other, so at night the birds sleep in separate roosting cavities. (It seems that constant ďyank, yank, yankĒ gets old after a while.) In the morning, before they get together for breakfast, each bird cleans its roosting hole by carrying out any droppings that may have been deposited during the night. How about that? Now thereís a bird that knows proper etiquette.

The books say WBNU pairs build their nests in old woodpecker holes or natural tree cavities. The books also tell us that these birds rarely use birdhouses, but Iíve had several nuthatches use my nest boxes. And Rosewood KYís famous Tommy also had a pair use his box. (See, you canít believe everything you read.) He even described a phenomenon known as ďbill sweeping.Ē Bill sweeping is when a nuthatch takes a crushed insect, or some other foreign substance, and wipes it around the cavityís entrance. Itís a very odd and entertaining behavior to witness and scientists arenít sure why the birds do it. They theorize that the smell of the crushed insect keeps predatory squirrels away. To this I say: Yeah, right. Sorry, eggheads. Take it from me, and every one of my customers, there ainít no bug smell on earth, or anything else for that matter, thatís going to stop a hungry squirrel.

I agree with you, Ralph. White-breasted Nuthatches are fun and interesting backyard birds. They not only can walk down a tree headfirst, but they clean up their own poop. Itís too bad other creatures donít do that. Thatís right, Iím talking to you dogs of the world.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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